The Only Surviving Text Written in Arabic by an American Slave Has Been Digitized & Put Online: Read the Autobiography of Enslaved Islamic Scholar, Omar Ibn Said (1831)

Several important pieces of primary documentary evidence have now become freely available to scholars, students, and anyone interested in the history of American slavery, one an autobiography written in Arabic by Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim man who was actively encouraged to read and write by his North Carolina owners. The Library of Congress announced this month that it had acquired the 1831 manuscript in 2017 and has now uploaded digital scans of Said’s Arabic original and several other documents about him and in his hand.

A 1925 English translation of Said’s short memoir appeared in The American Historical Review as “the first story of an educated Mohammedan slave in America.” Since 2013, it has been available online at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project.

It is a confusing document, in English at least: fragmented not only in its style but also in its shifting identifications. This is hardly surprising given Said’s story, both a common and very uncommon one.

Like millions of Africans, Said had been captured and enslaved, brought to Charleston, South Carolina in 1807, escaped, then been captured, jailed, and enslaved again in North Carolina. What made him a minorly famous figure in his own time—variously known as “Uncle Moreau” (or just “Morro” or “Moro”) and Prince Omeroh—as well as an important historical figure in ours, was that his is the only known surviving account in Arabic. It is one written, moreover, by a man who had been a writer and Islamic scholar for 25 years before his enslavement in what is now Senegal.

Said “gives a brief sketch of his life in Africa,” in the 15-page autobiography, the Library of Congress notes, “but enough to create a portrait of a highly educated and well-to-do individual.” His learning and literary talents so impressed his owner James Owen, brother of North Carolina governor John Owen, that he was given an English Qu’ran, “in the hope that he might pick up the language,” writes Brigit Katz at Smithsonian. He was also given an Arabic Bible. “In 1821, Said was baptized.”

He became “an object of fascination to white Americans,” after converting to Christianity, “but he does not appear to have forsaken his Muslim religion.” Said praises his owner copiously in the sketch of his life, with many expressions of Christian piety. He also opens his text, which is addressed to a “Sheikh Hunter,” with several verses quoted from the Qu’ran. “These might be omitted as not autobiographical,” the 1925 translator wrote, “though it has been thought best to print the whole.”

To the contrary, these verses, claims Mary-Jane Deeb—chief of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division—tell us quite a lot about Said, perhaps as much as the main text itself. They can be seen as a subversive means of communicating his continued Islamic faith and his continued resistance to his enslavement. The Surah he chose to quote “is extremely important. It’s a fundamental criticism of the right to own another human being.”

Said also inscribed in his Arabic Bible the phrases “Praise be to Allah, or God” and “All good is from Allah.” The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources notes that “fourteen Arabic manuscripts in Umar’s hand are extant. Many of them include excerpts from the Qu’ran and references to Allah.” It’s possible that Said’s conversion was genuine, and that he still expressed himself in the idiom of his former religion and subject of long study. It’s also quite likely that, for all the freedom he received to study and write, he still had plenty of good reasons to fear openly resisting the identity forced upon him.

Said died in 1864, Katz notes, “one year before the U.S. legally abolished slavery. He had been in American for more than 50 years. Said was reportedly treated relatively well in the Owen household, but he died a slave,” having “much forgotten” as he writes in his autobiography “my own, as well as the Arabic language,” holding on to what he remembered of his language and his faith by writing down what he recalled from memory. View the digitized documents from the Omar Ibn Said Collection at the Library of Congress and learn much more about his life at UNC’s Documenting the American South.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Ancient Romans First Committed the Sartorial Crime of Wearing Socks with Sandals, Archaeological Evidence Suggests

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Of all sartorial crimes, none require quite so much brazenness — or simple obliviousness — as the wearing of socks with sandals. But unlike most widely disdained fashions, which usually tend to have enjoyed their heyday two or three decades ago, the socks-and-sandals combination has deep historical roots. And those roots, so 21st-century researchers have found out, go much deeper than most of us may have expected. "Evidence from an archaeological dig has found," wrote Telegraph science correspondent Richard Alleyne in 2012, "that legionnaires wore socks with sandals" — ancient Roman legionnaires, that is. "Rust on a nail from a Roman sandal found in newly discovered ruins in North Yorkshire appears to contain fibres which could suggest that a sock-type garment was being worn."

"You don't imagine Romans in socks," Alleyne quoted the archaeologist heading the cultural heritage team on site as saying," but I am sure they would have been pretty keen to get hold of some as soon as autumn came along."

As with any new discovery about life in the past, this changes the way enthusiasts of the period have gone about re-creating their favorite elements of it: take, for instance, heritage educator and crafter Sally Pointer. "Pointer has been enamored with the ancient world since she was a kid," writes Atlas Obscura's Jessica Leigh Hester, "when she cooked up plans for potions, devices, and craft projects — all with the goal of understanding how things came to be."

Image by David Jackson via Wikimedia Commons

Looking to socks worn in ancient Egypt (see above), Pointer makes her own versions of these "cheerfully striped" socks using a technique called naalbinding, "which is sometimes considered a precursor to two-needle knitting and involves looping yarn on a single needle," and in this case making each sock's two toes separately and then joining them together. Should more evidence emerge about the techniques and styles of the socks Romans seem to have worn under their sandals, Pointer and makers like her will no doubt be the first to make use of them. But for now, we need only make one important revision to the historical record: "Britons may be famous for their lack of fashion sense and Italians for their style," as the sub-headline of Alleyne's piece puts it, "but it appears we may have inherited one of our biggest sartorial crimes from the Romans."

via Telegraph/Atlas Obscura

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The History of the Quirky Music Typewriter: Vintage Technologies for Printing Musical Notation

Nothing could seem more ordinary to anyone who has grown up with a musician in the house, or taken music classes themselves, than sheaves of sheet music: quarter, half, and whole notes tripping through orderly staffs in chords, arpeggios, and melodies. But the process of making those sheets of music is probably far less familiar to most of us. Music printing history, as the site Music Printing History shows, parallels book printing, but uses the technologies differently, from woodblock to lithography to photographic reproduction to perhaps a rarely seen method—the music typewriter.

These ingenious machines do exactly what it sounds like they do, in typewriter-like forms we’ll recognize and other forms we will not. The first patent for such a device, filed in 1885 by Charles Spiro, shows an object resembling a sewing machine.

The next invention, first patented by F. Dogilbert in 1906, resembles a mechanical engraving machine—and indeed, that’s more or less what it was. By contrast, the 1946 Musicwriter, invented by Cecil S. Effinger, looks just like an early IBM typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard. The next version of the machine was, in fact, a word processor made by IBM.

One invention Music Printing History does not mention was made by a woman, Miss Lillian Pavey, in 1961. In the British Pathé newsreel film above, you can see her typewriter in action as she transcribes music from a record in real time. In-between the earliest music typewriters, which were not mass-marketed to consumers, and IBM’s slick, 1988 Musicwriter II, which was, there is the odd Keaton Music Typewriter, first patented with 14 keys in 1936, then again in 1953 in a 33-key version.

See the Keaton’s clunky operation at the top of the post. It looks a little like a seismograph or lie detector machine with a semicircular double ring of keys (in the 33-key design) in the center of a metal carriage. (See the original patent below.) Contrary to the Pathé newsman’s claim that no one had succeeded in making a working music typewriter, the Keaton and other models to follow in the 40s and 50s sold, though not in large quantities, and “made it easier for publishers, educators, and other musicians to produce music copies in quantity.” Typed sheet music could easily be mass-reproduced by photography.

Nonetheless, Music Printing History notes, “composers… preferred to write the music out by hand.” The typewriter was mainly offered as a tool for mechanical reproduction, not spontaneous composition. Computers have changed things such that composers seem to have the same kinds of debates about handwriting verses digital as writers do. But where the typewriter is still a powerful symbol of literary art—for some an instrument as distinctive and worthy of study as the guitars of rock ‘n’ roll greats—the music typewriter is an oddity, a mechanical curiosity no one associates with creation.

Yet, as “the most vintage and wonderfully impractical thing ever,” as Classic Fm dubs the device, unwieldy machines like the Keaton remain high on the list of cool, quirky inventions its most likely customers didn't really seem to need.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking in Her First Online Course

FYI: Jodie Foster has just rolled out a new online course on filmmaking over on MasterClass. In 18 video lessons, the two-time Oscar-winner guides "you through every step of the filmmaking process, from storyboarding to casting and camera coverage." According to MasterClass, the course comes with "a downloadable workbook of lesson recaps and access to exclusive supplemental materials from Jodie’s archive." Students will have "the chance to upload videos to receive feedback from peers and potentially Jodie herself!" You can enroll in Foster's new class (which runs $90) here. You can also pay $180 to get an annual pass to all of MasterClass' courses--which includes other filmmaking classes by Ken Burns, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog and more.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Librarian Honors a Dying Tree by Turning It Into a Little Free Library

And then she said to Annika, "Why don't you feel in that old tree stump? One practically always finds things in old tree stumps." 

- Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren 

Remember that other classic of children's literature, wherein a boy runs from the city to a secluded mountain, taking up residence in an old tree he hollows into a cozy shelter?

Public librarian and artist Sharalee Armitage Howard’s Little Free Library is a bit like that, except there was no running involved.

When the venerable and ailing cottonwood in her Coeur d’Alene front yard began dropping branches on cars parked below, Howard faced the inevitable. But rather than chop the tree even with the ground, she arranged with the removal crew to leave a considerable amount of stump intact.

Then, in a Pippi Longstocking-ish move, she filled it with books for her neighbors and strangers to discover.

The interior has a snug, woodland vibe, worthy of Beatrix Potter or Alison Uttley, with tidy shelves, soft lighting, and a shingled roof to protect the contents from the elements.

Ever since December, when Howard posted photos to social media, the fairytale-like structure has been engendering epic amounts of global goodwill.

What a beautiful way to preserve and honor a tree that stood for well over a century.

One of the few naysayers is Reddit user discerningpervert, who is perhaps not giving voice to the Lorax, so much as Thalia, Muse of Comedy, when he writes:

It's like a house of horrors for trees. Inside the corpse of their former comrade are the processed remnants of their treebrothers and treesisters.

A literal Treehouse of Horror...

Visit Howard’s Little Free Library (charter #8206) the next time you're in Idaho. Or install one of your own.

(Those with trees to throw at the cause may want to begin with the stump hollowing tutorial below.)

via Twisted Sifter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Zora Neale Hurston & Eleanor Roosevelt Helped Create the First Realistic African American Baby Doll (1951)

In the 1930s and 40s, child psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark found that very young black children in the U.S. usually chose dolls with lighter skin colors when given a choice. The findings suggested that the children had internalized dominant prejudices against them “by the time they reached nursery school,” notes the National Museum of Play. “These studies played an important role in the NAACP’s battle in the 1950s to end segregation in public schools.”

What often goes unremarked in accounts of this research is that at the time “almost all of the African American dolls on the market were modeled after racist stereotypes,” as Emily Temple notes in an article on LitHub drawing on the work of historian Gordon Patterson. "Those that weren’t" caricatures "were just white dolls that had been painted brown.” This had been the case for two centuries, as Collectors Weekly explains. Black children had been internalizing racism—learning to associate positive attributes with white dolls and negative attributes with black dolls.

But those children (and their parents) had also been rejecting the racist caricatures and forms of erasure on offer. Temple writes of how one white woman, Sara Lee Creech “noticed two black children playing with white dolls in a car outside of a post office in Belle Glade, Florida.” She felt that they should have toys that represented their experience as well. Already a social justice warrior, as they say—“active in the women’s movements since the mid 1930s” and helping to found “an Interracial Council in Belle Glade”—Creech decided she would create a doll that “would represent the beauty and diversity of black children.”

If this “sounds a little white savior-y,” writes Temple, “I’m with you,” but there’s much more to the story. Creech submitted the idea to her friend Zora Neale Hurston, pioneering ethnographer of African American culture and premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston “was enthusiastic about the project” and, in turn, pledged to “show pictures of the doll to the ‘well known and influential members’ of the black community with whom she had connections.”

In 1950, Hurston wrote to Creech in praise of her intention to “meet our longing for understanding of us as we really are, and not as some would have us.” At the same time, Creech’s friend Maxeda von Hesse brought Eleanor Roosevelt onto the project, who enthusiastically supported it as well, going so far as to host a tea with Mary Bethune, Ralph Bunche, and Jackie Robinson, among other influential figures, “to consult on the appropriate skin.”

The Ideal Toy Company—founded by the creators of the first mass-produced Teddy Bear—took on the enterprise of manufacturing the doll, named Sara Lee, selling they toy between 1951 and 1953. It was the first attempt to mass-market a realistic African American baby doll. She first appeared in the 1951 Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog. Major magazines like Esquire, Life, Time, Ebony, and Newsweek announced the doll’s arrival, but sales were eventually disappointing due to manufacturing flaws.

The demand, however, had always been there. Filmmaker Samantha Knowles and doll collectors like Debra Britt and Debbie Behan Garrett describe their experiences with the scarcity of black dolls on the market. During her childhood in the 1950s and 60s, Garrett remarks, “black dolls were just not readily available, and those that were available, my mother felt were not true representations of black people. So all of my dolls were white.” (In his article, Patterson cites Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye as the classically tragic literary treatment of the situation.)

Even after the brief introduction of the Sara Lee doll, Garrett's experience continued to be that of most back children. As the Museum of Play notes, it wouldn’t be until 1968 that major companies would again mass-market black dolls, starting with Barbie’s friend Christie. That year also saw the release of “Baby Nancy,writes Garrett, made by newly-founded black-owned doll company Shindana toys, which became “the nation’s largest manufacturer of black dolls and games.”

Read more at LitHub about how Zora Neale Hurston, Eleanor Roosevelt, and an unknown activist in the late 1940s and early 50s first opened the door to a more inclusive toy market that treated its customers more equally. Using commercial means to effect social change may remain a debatable tactic, but there’s no question that positive cultural representation matters for children’s development. Intentional or otherwise, exclusion and stereotyping cause real harm. As Debbie Garrett puts it, “if black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”

via LitHub

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

To Help Digitize and Forever Preserve the Sound of Stradivarius Violins, a City in Italy Has Gone Silent

Image by Mark Ordonez, via Flickr Commons

We all have respect, even awe, for the name Stradivarius, even those of us who have never held a violin, let alone played one. The violins — as well as violas, cellos, and other string instruments, including guitars — made by members of the Stradivari family 300 years ago have become symbols of pure sonic quality, still not quite replicable with even 21st-century technology, with rarity and prices to match. But to truly understand the preciousness of the Stradivarius, look not to the auction house but to the northern Italian city of Cremona, home of the Museo del Violino and its collection of some of the best-preserved examples of the 650 surviving Stradivarius instruments in the world.

"Cremona is home to the workshops of some of the world’s finest instrument makers, including Antonio Stradivari, who in the 17th and 18th centuries produced some of the finest violins and cellos ever made," writes The New York Times' Max Paradiso. "The city is getting behind an ambitious project to digitally record the sounds of the Stradivarius instruments for posterity, as well as others by Amati and Guarneri del Gesù, two other famous Cremona craftsmen. And that means being quiet." It's all to help the ambitious recording project now creating the Stradivarius Sound Bank, "a database storing all the possible tones that four instruments selected from the Museo del Violino’s collection can produce."

This requires great efforts on the part of the engineers and the performers, the latter of whom have to play hundreds of scales and arpeggios (examples of which you can hear embedded in The New York Times article) on these staggeringly valuable instruments. But the people of Cremona have to cooperate, too: in the area around the Museo del Violino's auditorium where the Stradivarius Sound Bank is recording, "the sound of a car engine, or a woman walking in high heels, produces vibrations that run underground and reverberate in the microphones, making the recording worthless." And so Cremona's mayor, also the president of the Stradivarius Foundation, "allowed the streets around the museum to be closed for five weeks, and appealed to people in the city to keep it down."

Few of us alive today have heard the sound of a Stradivarius in person, but that number will shrink further still in future generations. It's to do with the very nature of these centuries-old instruments which, no matter what kind of efforts go toward making them playable, still seem to have a finite lifespan. "We preserve and restore them," Paradiso quotes Museo del Violino curator Fausto Cacciatori as saying, "but after they reach a certain age, they become too fragile to be played and they ‘go to sleep,’ so to speak." The day will presumably come when the last Stradivarius goes to sleep, but by that time the sounds they made will still be wide awake in their digitized second life. And we can be certain, at least, that future generations will think of a musical use for them that we can no more imagine now than Antonio Stradivari could have in his day.

via The New York Times

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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